We all remember the Iran hostage crisis of 1980, where the US embassy in Tehran was taken over by militants and 52 members of staff were held hostage for 444 days. But raise your hand if you have ever heard of the Canadian Caper. No? Well, neither had I. But that clever rescue of six American diplomats in a joint operation by the Canadian government and the CIA is the true basis of this stunning new film from Affleck.
The six diplomats manage to flee the embassy and find refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. When the CIA learns of what's happened, they call in extraction expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) to help in their plan to get the Americans out, via a 300km bicycle ride to the border. But Mendez has a better plan. With the help of a Hollywood make up maestro (Goodman) and producer (Arkin), he concocts a fake movie, Argo, as a front to extract the six refugees as "crew" who were in Iran to scout for filmoing locations.
Argo is, by turns, both a dramatic thriller and a comedy. The initial scenes of the revolution and takeover of the US embassy are played straight, as they should be. And the scenes later in the film involving the "caper" and extraction of the six are as nail-bitingly tense as any thriller can be. All the humour comes from the dealings with Hollywood. Showbusiness comes in for a major skewering, thanks to some excellent work from Goodman and Arkin, both relishing the chance to have a bit of a nibble on the hand that has fed them so well for so long. It feels very much like an insider comedy in the vein of The Player. There's some great work from the rest of the ensemble cast too, particularly Cranston – whose star has has risen rapidly thanks to his cult TV series Breaking Bad – as Tony's CIA boss.
But the major star here, both in front of and behind the camera, is Affleck. So long a Hollywood joke (for reasons that still escape me), Affleck has had a major career turnaround as a director, first with Gone Baby Gone and then The Town. With Argo, he cements his place as one of the best film directors working in Hollywood today. The film is flawless, with nary a scene or even a moment, out of place. The tone throughout, with its mix of comedy and drama, is perfect. And Affleck's performance is quiet, understated and smart. Argo is one of the best films of 2012, and clearly the members of the Academy agreed with me (it won the Best Picture Oscar).
EXTRAS ★★★ An audio commentary (on the theatrical version only) with director Affleck and writer Terrio; a picture-in-picture feature option with some of the survivors of the 1979 rescue; the featurette Rescued From Tehran: We Were There (16:51); the behind-the-scenes featurette Argo: Absolute Authenticity (11:19); the featurette Argo: The CIA and Hollywood Connection (6:05); the documentary Escape From Iran: The Hollywood Option (46:34).